My Long Love/Hate Relationship with New Orleans
New Orleans is a city built in the wrong place. Jean de Bienville nearly 300 years ago insisted on mastering the marshy lands, setting up a settlement in a place that was literally wiped out every spring as the waters in the crescent of the Mississippi River swelled.
Bienville snookered many French into selling everything they had to move to "fertile cresecent city" by neglecting to mention the yearly flooding. Over the years, New Orleanians have insisted on loving and hating the river.
I lived in New Orleans from 1979 to 1987 and I can tell you that the big storm subject came up every hurricane season. I was living in New Orleans during Elana in 1985.
Here's the thing. Even when hurricanes are not coming, living in New Orleans was stressful. It is hot as hell for 6 months out of the year. It is humid as hell as well. It is over 1 million people in a 12 square mile area, living on top of each other (remember rat over-population experiments).
I can remember the incredible relief I would feel when leaving the city. Heading east on I10, I would feel a burden lifted just getting to the Slidell side of the lake.
New Orleans was a scary place to live. I was a victim of crime on numerous occasions. My friends were victims as well. I carried "mug money" in my shoe for 7 years so that if I was ever confronted, I would have at least $10 on me so as not to be knifed or shot. I lived 2 doors down from a man who killed two people by knifing them 30 times in the back seat of a car while making their daughter drive. No one could explain why he did it. But it was grumesome even by New Orleans standards. You understand. The guy convincted of this crime turned out to be my neighbor.
During the 1980s, 3 people a day were murdered on average. So gun-toting gangs running around the streets doesn't exactly surprise me. I'm not sure if it is really anything different than last week, just more visible. People do strange things in the heat and chaos.
But I absolutely loved living in New Orleans and I cried when we moved. Yep, I know I've painted a bleak picture. But the culture, the ambience, the river, the history and the people were a neverending fascination for me. I loved living there because something was always going on. I loved living there because I was always learning something new about the place.
You know, it was like being in love with the bad boy. You know he is an outlaw and really could end up being the death of you, but my oh my is the sex good!
I have to admit that watching the videos for the past few days have shaken me. I recognize a lot of the buildings. It is shocking to see the damage. I've also driven the beach in Mississippi many times. I remember seeing the after effects of Frederick and Elana along the coast. Trees snapped off like toothpicks. Katrina is much, much worse.
But I think the thing that has shaken me most about all this is that I hate being right. Carl and I have an ongoing discussion about the power elite in the US (and really, more accurately globally). He worries that they are "getting away with it" because so much of their behavior remainds unchecked and unmarked. I respond, "we are one natural disaster away from the infrastructure falling apart. It will catch up with us some day."
I truly hope this isn't that day, but as I listened to talk radio today and watched as gas prices soared and listened to empty promises from the current administration and thought about how everyone has known that this storm could happen and how it really wasn't the worst case scenario and how the money spent on the war in Iraq made it impossible to shore up the levies and how most of my life I've heard about how our dependency upon oil would someday make us vunerable and well, it just starts adding up after a while, doesn't it?
In the meantime, people suffer. I cannot imagine having to do this.
I am so afraid that it is going to get worse before it gets better.
I don't want to be right.
But I am afraid I am.
My eternal optimism is that maybe these things can be a wake up call. We cannot continue to pretend that all our problems can be solved by might. We cannot continue to keep our brightest minds in intellectual ghettoes while powerful people just continue to exploit.
We need these bright minds when things like Katrina hit. Actually, we need them before things like Katrina hit.
A lot of people are trying to ascribe meaning to the devastation of New Orleans. It is an outlaw town, often proud of its "badness." It didn't surprise me that the Sodom and Gomorrah references and allusions surfaced.
I don't think New Orleans is being punished. I don't think the casinoes on the Gulf Coast have invited the wrath of some greater being.
But I do believe that the ability to prepare for this disaster, to respond to this disaster and to recover from this disaster is severely limited by the dumbing down of America and by the dreadful ways in which this country has positioned itself in the global community. We may all pay a price for the corruption of power. Not as great a price as the citizens of southern Lousiana, Mississippi and Alabama, but one look at the rise of gas prices (which btw, have been rising rapidly for weeks) and one can understand that the piper may be calling.
My Long Love/Hate Relationship with New Orleans